Mar 15, 2012

The Next Day by Jason Gilmore, Paul Peterson and John Porcellino

The Next Day by Jason Gilmore, Paul Peterson and John Porcellino

The Next Day is a graphic novella based on extensive interviews conducted with four suicide attempt survivors: Tina, Ryan, Chantel, and Jenn. The book opens with a trigger warning telling readers that it will “include descriptions of actual suicide attempts and upsetting events”, and indeed there’s no way around the fact that this is a very difficult read. John Porcellino’s very sparse art style only highlights the pain of their stories – though the final impression The Next Day will leave on readers is certainly not one of complete hopelessness and despair.

There’s no doubt that The Next Day is a sensitive, well-researched book, written with nothing but complete empathy and respect for these four people’s experiences. These stories only give us a brief glimpse of Tina, Ryan, Chantel and Jenn’s lives, but they still come across as multifaceted, sympathetic people whose very real difficulties drove them over the edge.

The Next Day by Jason Gilmore, Paul Peterson and John Porcellino

Still, as I read on I couldn’t help but be reminded of what Jon Ronson says in The Psychopath Test about the dangers of telling stories that “reduce people to their maddest edges”. The premise of The Next Day requires it to be a book focused on dysfunction, on the things that went wrong, on all the cumulative moments that led to these four suicide attempts. But it’s worth it to remember that these are not the only possible narratives that could come out of the interviewee’s lives. As the book rightly highlights, a suicide attempt is not a small thing. It often has indelible consequences in people’s lives, it often damages relationships forever, and it leaves marks that must be constantly negotiated in the future. But none of that means it has to become the sole defining event of a survivor’s life.

Also, despite their different life trajectories, Tina, Ryan, Chantel and Jenn all tell stories that have a lot in common. All four had troubled childhoods or adolescences that eventually led to circumstances in which their lives were falling apart: they faced unemployment, substance addiction, and great difficulties with interpersonal relationships. Before I say anything else, I should point out once again that the stories told in The Next Day are real: this is what things were actually like for these four people. It goes without saying that suicide survivors whose lives had completely collapsed previous to their attempts exist, and that their stories deserve to be told. However, I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps these four narratives all fit one type, and if this type represents the least threatening type of suicide narrative we can conceive of. Because the interviewees’ lives had completely crumbled, their stories may allow some of us to view them as “other”. They may allow us to think, “it won’t get as bad as that for me. I have a job, a home, a distinct lack of substance additions. I don’t need help. This couldn’t happen to me.”

The Next Day by Jason Gilmore, Paul Peterson and John Porcellino

Perhaps the use of an imperfect analogy will allow me to explain my point better: imagine a book about the experiences of four rape survivors, all of whom had been attacked by strangers when they were on their way back home alone late at night: these four survivors would be real, would in no way whatsoever be to blame for what had happened to them, and would be deserving of all our consideration and respect. Their stories would be absolutely worth telling, but we could nevertheless recognise them as fitting the “stranger in the bushes” rape narrative; a narrative we privilege because it reinforces comfortable dominant assumptions about sexual assault. This narrative can be, and often is, used to keep difficult questions or realisations we’d rather not confront at bay, intentionally or not.

Returning to The Next Day, I worry that the type of narrative it privileges similarly avoids uncomfortable thoughts: thoughts about how sometimes suicide attempts happen in circumstances of almost frightening normalcy; circumstances of material comfort; circumstances in which all the external signs of success and future ambition are present. Such circumstances often draw callous “you have no real reasons to complain” responses or other instances of victim-blaming rhetoric, and this is an additional problem. For this reason, I really wish there had been at least one story in this book that broke the pattern.

But my question really doesn’t detract from the sensitivity behind The Next Day, nor from the huge merit of what it does accomplish. I realise that expecting any given book about suicide to contain all possible stories, all imaginable sets of circumstances, all nuances and variations, is not exactly reasonable. The Next Day may be narrow in scope, but it’s an important and humane book and it does what it set out to do very well.

Last but not least, there’s the fact that these four stories were told at all; that this book is another small step towards combating the silence and stigma that still surround depression and suicide. This alone is certainly no small thing. I may have wanted more from The Next Day, but I’m still incredibly glad that it exists.

The Next Day by Jason Gilmore, Paul Peterson and John Porcellino

The Next Day by Jason Gilmore, Paul Peterson and John Porcellino

In addition to being a comic, The Next Day is also an animated documentary, which you can watch at the National Film Board of Canada website.


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Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%. I downloaded a review copy of this book via NetGalley.

13 comments:

  1. I'd never heard of this book, but like you said, I'm glad it exists. And I hope it's easy to find. And I hope that many, many, many people will read it. It's so hard to stomach how dismissive some people continue to be about depression and suicide.

    I understand what you mean about wishing the authors had chosen additional stories to tell as well though. Being a suicide survivor myself, having a dear friend who is a suicide survivor, and having a dear friend who did not survive...well, there's three very real stories that don't fit that pattern at all.

    Thanks Ana.

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  2. Debi: I'm so glad you understand what I meant (and I suspected that you of all people would). I was worried I came across as saying, "I want the stories of more privileged people to erase or trump those of survivors who have struggled in all aspects of their lives", but that's really not what I mean. It's just that I think that there's a tendency to see some instances of depression as more "real" than others and to dismiss stories that don't fit what people think of as "bad enough" circumstances. As valuable as this book is, I worry that it contributes to that. But having said that, I also absolutely hope it's read by many.

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  3. Not the type of subject you would consider readign in a graphic book. I think I would struggled to read this one.

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  4. This one is new to me as well, and it sounds really interesting. I would really like to explore more graphic novels.

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  5. Nymeth - I can always count on you to have such well thought-out and really thoughtful reviews. This is no different. I hadn't heard of this one, but as you say, it's one I'm glad exists, even if it doesn't do all that we may wish. Now I need to see if I can track it down.

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  6. I get your point and think it's a shame that they didn't get a wider range of experiences. It still sounds like a book that could benefit a lot of people.

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  7. I haven't read this, but this is a perfect review.

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  8. I totally know what you mean about privileging certain stories above others. I worry about that too with depictions of suicide in media -- but still of course I am glad that the book explores suicide in a thoughtful way.

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  9. Well that sounds cheerful. =/

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  10. I'm glad this book exists too…it's a topic that needs to be talked about I think, but needs to be talked about in the RIGHT way…I'm glad "mental illness" is getting talked about more…that people are becoming more comfortable with seeking help and talking about their depression and anxiety and other fears in general. That the stigma of shame isn't AS attached as it was before..though there's certainly still a long way to go :/

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  11. I have never heard of this before. I will have to check into it the documentary tomorrow.

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  12. Thanks for this very sensitive review. Suicide (attemps) is a subject that is so often discarded as far away and about other people - I understand what you mean about the need for a story that breaks the pattern, because in reality these stories are everywhere.
    I'll probably grab this graphic novel at some point - thanks again.

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  13. I'm currently taking part in the Mental Illness Advocacy reading challenge, which this book might be appropiate for. However I haven't ever read a graphic novel before, not sure it is my thing, might need to start on something easier than this. Great review though.

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